As much as I love snow, its monochrome charms fade quickly. Soon enough, after a couple of Nor’easters, I find myself driven to cookbooks to resuscitate my senses. At least in normal times, that is.

In this homebound year of unseasonably lovely weather, I’ve been finding my culinary diversions elsewhere. Here are a few of the best from the past two months.

Meatloaf from Pat’s Meat Market in Portland. We reveal the secret ingredient. Photo by Andrew Ross

I regret that it took me this long to try Pat’s Famous Meatloaf. I get a little blindered when I walk into a butcher shop, narrowing my focus down to the flank steaks and duck breasts, but I won’t make that mistake again at Pat’s Meat Mart in Portland.

Their 2.5-lb. meatloaf ($14.99) is a hefty little bundle of ground beef, onions, peppers and breadcrumbs. Nothing surprising in that list, but ratios make all the difference. Pat’s meatloaf relies on a lean ground round blend and a sparing approach to breadcrumbs — just enough to keep the loaf springy. When it cooks (for more than an hour), the loaf also shrinks less than other meatloaves.

“It’s one of those items where maybe you don’t want takeout on a Tuesday night, but you don’t want to cook either. Meatloaf is good because it really is a home-cooked meal. It just feels better to take something out of the oven than always doing takeout,” manager and co-owner Elliot Vacchiano said. “The secret ingredient…well, not so secret anymore…is the Black Jade sauce from ‘Cue Culture out of Hollis.”

Brewed with strong coffee, brown sugar and a little chili powder, sauce-master Wayne Tuohy’s Black Jade marinade is a Central-America-inspired riff on Worcestershire sauce. In Pat’s Famous Meatloaf, it contributes a nutty complexity and a whisper of heat.

Another compulsory addition to any order from Pat’s: at least a pound of Greek chicken sausages ($6.99/lb.). Terrific pan-fried as patties or crumbled into pasta with a little fresh mint and oregano, these chunky links (it takes just three make up a pound) are ultra-garlicky, with a balance of sweet and savory from sundried tomatoes and feta cheese.

Pat’s Meat Mart, 484 Stevens Ave., Portland (207-772-3961, patsmeatmart.com)

The runny, rindy Monnalisa Fiorita, purchased at Solo Cucina Market in South Portland. Photo by Andrew Ross

Speaking of cheese, I’ve been working my way through Solo Cucina Market’s ample dairy case recently and have found a new favorite: the runny, rindy Monnalisa Fiorita ($19/lb.) from Salcis in Siena, Italy.

A sub-species of robiola, this sweet, Piemontese-style sheep’s milk cheese is named for the blooming (“fiori”) rind that develops over several months of temperature-controlled aging. Whether or not you’ve tried it before, Fiorita may taste familiar to you, as it is produced very much like a French Camembert —right down to the inoculation cultures that germinate its fragrant casing.

I like to give it a few hours at room temperature to coax it into maximum runniness, then eat it with dried apricots or spread with the back of a spoon onto thin slices of crusty, freshly baked bread. Solo’s $4, house-baked demi baguettes do the trick nicely.

This combo works especially well with beverages that lead with tannins or astringency, wines like light-bodied, yet bracing red Monica di Sardegna Cardedu ($20), Occhipinti SP68 Rosso ($28) with its palate-lashing Frappato blend, or (if you’re not in the mood for wine) a well-chilled glass of Maine Root’s off-dry, non-alcoholic blueberry soda ($1.95).

Solo Cucina Market, 161 Ocean St., South Portland (207-808-8507, facebook.com/solocucinamarket)

Dine Out critic Andrew Ross says the King Cake from Tin Pan Bakery in Portland is “the best I’ve ever had.” Photo by Andrew Ross

Each January, New Orleans bakeries embark on their short season of kneading and shaping sweet, enriched dough into celebratory, colored-sugar-sprinkled rings. Legend has it that these Mardi Gras “king cakes” are the direct descendants of flakier, laminated French pastries baked to usher in the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day. But nobody can say for certain.

North Americans have grown to love the modern Cajun version, a twisted wreath of yeasted dough, striations of cinnamon sugar, and a plastic baby hidden inside. Accept a slice, and you also agree to a gambler’s bargain: If you’re served the piece containing the baby (usually slipped into the cake from below after baking to avoid a melted, inedible mess), you become the lucky host responsible for supplying next year’s cake. Whether you’re religious, a bead-seeking reveler, or somewhere in between, eating king cake is a tradition worth adopting.

Given our distance from Louisiana, what I tell you next might come as a surprise, but it’s the truth: Tin Pan Bakery’s king cakes are the best I’ve ever tasted. That might sound like faint praise coming from a Northerner, but I’ve eaten more than a normal person’s share of king cake in my time.

It began in my college dorm, with iced slices of braided brioche pilfered from Manny Randazzo Bakery care packages delivered to a Louisianan roommate. Then one sweltering February, when I briefly considered moving to New Orleans, I bought and promptly devoured an entire unfrosted “galette des rois” from La Boulangerie on Magazine Street. I’ve also mail-ordered from Gambino’s Bakery on occasion and even baked my own. Never again.

Tin Pan chef/owner Elise Richer’s cakes are richer and more tender than their Southern counterparts, owing to a brilliant substitution: sour cream in place of whole milk. Richer credits her willingness to experiment with the traditional recipe to her background as a native New Englander who did not grow up eating king cake.

“People started calling and asking, because they know that we always try to do something nice for holidays, like hot cross buns. King cakes though…they’re not the type of thing I know like the back of my hand, so I couldn’t just pull out a recipe. I didn’t have a particular flavor in mind, so I looked at recipes from that area in the New Orleans newspaper, cookbooks from the South, and I found what people tended to agree on,” she said. “Then it happens: I make a trial one every season and always end up saying to myself ‘This is really good. Why do we make this only once each year?’”

I asked the same question. Richer laughed and let me (and you) in on a secret: Even though the cakes are usually off the menu by late March, she plans to continue making her cream-cheese-filled king cakes ($12/small, $22/large) for a few more weeks. Head to her website and order a large one; you won’t be sorry.

Tin Pan Bakery, 897 Brighton Ave., Portland (207-310-4405, tinpanbakery.com)

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of four recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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